from Graveyard of Bitter Oranges
May the wax drops from a blessed candle spill over my navel to seal my corpse. Lay the large sacred image that hung for decades over my deathbed—Raphael’s Madonna della seggiola—on top of my open coffin, so the mourners around the casket, come to pray and chant and pay their respects, may no longer see my face in death. The needles that wove my death shroud, stick them in my cold, blue heels, to keep me from running down the village street and returning, as a vampire, to the homes of my children and grandchildren. And if I do come back to suck the blood of my kin, do not hesitate to cut my head off with a spade and lay it between my legs. Catch the blood that flows from my head in a goblet, and drink it down, for this is my blood, which I have spilled for you, and whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, shall remain in me, and I in him. O Jesus, humbly entered into Jerusalem, have mercy on us! O Jesus, who wept from compassion with Jerusalem, have mercy on us! O Jesus, who washed the feet of thy disciples, have mercy on us! O Jesus, who strengthens us as living bread, have mercy on us! Do not forget to pick fresh daisies, still damp with dew, if possible, to adorn the board that will bear my mortal remains over the sixteen steps of the staircase down into the parlor of the farmhouse, where I will be laid in my coffin, and later, if my corpse lies long in the wooden box with its lining of black crepe paper, inscribe it with my name and my birth and death dates, and lay it in the leech-infested moss, to make a footbridge over the stream, amid the marsh marigolds. If you step across this footbridge, now and then, to pick snowdrops, Christmas roses, or marsh marigolds, and lay them in your mother’s lap, or at the feet of the Crucified, be careful not to tread the small, carved cross on my memorial, lest you wound my poor soul, and from high in heaven, or trapped in Purgatory, curled up like a fetus, I let loose cries of pain that can be heard from ocean to ocean, far above the airplanes and clouds. O Jesus, who consoles us with thy sacred blood, have mercy on us! O Jesus, sold for thirty pieces of silver, have mercy on us! O Jesus, who grieving prayed to his father until the hour of his death, have mercy on us! O Jesus, who from fear sweated blood in the garden, have mercy on us! Even if the cemetery dirt should lie more than a meter thick upon my face, still, I dread the crabs with the tiny lights around their necks that will crawl not once, but many nights to my mound of earth and say to me: farewell! O Jesus, fortified by the angels, have mercy on us! O Jesus, betrayed by Judas with a kiss, have mercy on us! O Jesus, bound with ropes and chains, have mercy on us! O Jesus, abandoned by thy disciples, have mercy on us! Beat thrice on my coffin with the communal whip that torments the children in the village, so the leaves and petals of the flowers will scatter, my soul be chased away, and my corpse be borne more lightly and not tumble out over the soil of the village strewn with the petals of peonies. During the exequies, may those I left behind be seated on the mourners’ bench, and let the priest in his black vestments lay holy wafers draped in mourning veils upon their outstretched tongues. With long burning candles, have the black-clothed acolytes kneel, one to the coffin’s left, the other to its right, at the head, of course, and not at the foot of my mortal remains. O Jesus, dragged before Annas and Caiaphas, have mercy on us! O Jesus, smote by the palms of hands, have mercy on us! O Jesus, by false witnesses betrayed, have mercy on us! O Jesus, by Peter thrice denied, have mercy on us! If I should perish of a stroke—a stroke went and took Grandma away!—and my heart should burst and my eyes cloud over in one and the same moment, think, then, that it was the middle one of the three drops of blood that everyone carries in his head that now has fallen to the floor. Should my health fail me—See, O Lord, here is my body, here is my soul, I lay them in thy blessed hand, do with them what thou willst—then be sure that feathers, bundled together like wreaths, are laid in abundance on my headrest. You know, I told you many times, funeral wreaths is our name for those white feathers bundled together like garlands. They are an infallible omen of death. Or run a crust of bread over my forehead and feed it to the dog chained out in the yard. If he eats the bread, I will live longer, if he eats it not, then I must soon die, in just an hour perhaps, for the sweat of the dead tastes sharper than the urine poured into the milk of faithful hounds, so that, when their masters or mistresses die, they may at last be freed from their chains to crouch at the edge of the grave, to howl, and to die their wretched death. O Jesus, prisoner handed over to Pilate, have mercy on us! O Jesus, falsely accused before Pilate, have mercy on us! O Jesus, mocked in thy garments of white, have mercy on us! O Jesus, passed over for the killer Barabbas, have mercy on us! Just imagine, only yesterday I saw a man’s shadow without a head, wet clothes—my death shroud?—swimming upstream. For three hours or more, without interruption, while I lay helpless on my back, open-mouthed, and wheezing, I heard the heartbeat of a bat that crouched on a mirror frame, staring at me without cease. Just imagine, the hole in the church wall, the one the devil flew out of, was sealed by the priest and the villagers with the bones of my cranium. Wafers were sunk in the stone fonts of holy water and fished out with Christ’s umbilical cord. Fireworks blazed in heaven in cruciform sparks. A boiled red crayfish lay on an overturned deathbed. The steps of a staircase, eternally winding, were nailed together from coffin lids. On a bishop’s cap I saw a lightning rod and a crown of thorns on the glans of the Christ child come to me make of me a happy boy my heart is pure no one may enter but you my dear little Jesus. With the top of an elongated crucifix, my decapitated shadow bored into the grave of my child untimely dead, until it reached the coffin and knocked there three times. Slowly, on the gravedigger’s shovel, there spun a globe besmirched with cemetery dirt. My limbs fell from the chimney, reassembled, and started to dance, Lost, lost, like a stone on the road, that’s how lost I am! O Jesus, whose flesh was shredded mercilessly with scourges, have mercy on us! O Jesus, clad in thy purple robe and mocked, have mercy on us! O Jesus imprisoned, have mercy on us! O Jesus, crowned with thorns, have mercy on us! If the Grim Reaper, who now and then can transform into a bat festooned with flowers, grabs my leg as it twitches for the very last time, do not forget to shut the window of my death chamber, or else the windowpanes will shatter. The people of the village should not touch the obituary with their bare hands, and when they have read it through carefully, sheathed in their mittens, they should throw it into the fire. Bring the sheet I lay on in life, which I will no longer care to lie upon in death, set it out in the fresh air, and look to see whether the death-bird flies crosswise overhead, only then may you sink it in the village stream and wash away the sickening scent of my corpse with a bar of turpentine soap stamped with the head of a deer. To drive away my death scent, walk for hours with blessed palms all throughout the house, starting in the room where I died and lay exposed. I will not be sore with you if, a mere week after my burial, you have already whitewashed my death chamber, and if the summer houseguest lies down at night to rest in my freshly made deathbed. O Jesus, whose holy face was defiled with impure spit, have mercy on us! O Jesus, struck with a cane, have mercy on us! O Jesus, condemned, though innocent in death, have mercy on us! O Jesus, thrown upon the malice of the Jews, have mercy on us! If ever you must stand before the court, tie the cloth that wiped the corpse clean around your body, it will baffle the judge, and he will set you, the accused, free. Gather the shavings from the coffin, the angels’ locks, as we used to call them, from the floor of the carpenter’s workshop, and lay them at my feet in the coffin. Go not to the supermarket for coffins and cushions for the dead, instead have a woodwright take care of the casket. With the castoff bits of coffin wood, on Holy Saturday, a few hours before the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, set a fire in the graveyard. Each household should receive a few smoldering bits of wood from the fire built with my coffin, and they should take them home to light their kitchen stoves. For the love of God and Christ! you must say to Peter Obermann, the one who will frame my coffin, that he refrain from building beehives while he does so, because you know, the honeycombs look like tiny coffins. To no other person, save my mortal remains, will the industrious bees go near, and they will dig up the soil of my grave. But they may not suck at the blossoms on my grave mound while I chew the roots of the red and white flesh flowers, the ragged robins planted in my grave mound and swaying over my head, which will be my only nourishment. O Jesus, who bears the heavy burden of the cross, have mercy on us! O Jesus, taking leave of thy grieving mother, have mercy on us! O Jesus, innocent lamb led to slaughter, have mercy on us! O Jesus, stripped bare on the hill of Calvary, have mercy on us! Fill the cushion where I will lay my head in death, a few days before uttering my dying amen, with dew-damp earth from Fox Meadow. It would be nice if my head lay on a cushion full of earth where many clumps of grass had grown. Of course I would gladly have my death-cushion filled with earth from Jerusalem, but I cannot demand you board a plane to the Holy Land, with black mourning bands around your arms and legs and a jute sack in your hand. But do not forget to sprinkle holy water on my shrine in the presence of the black-robed priests and the acolytes in mourning clothes, before my corpse is placed inside, and to bless it with the smoke of consecrated herbs, for my coffin must be pure as the Virgin Mary before it can receive my body. And let a few drops of consecrated wax fall in the coffin as you utter Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Dip a cloth in the water that was used to wash my corpse, embroider it with a black cross, and lay it over my face, to keep my body from rotting too soon, so the hungry cats and farm rats will not eat away my nose, and perhaps my eyelids. Just imagine if I lie in the casket open-eyed, stare during the viewing at the white plafond of the farmhouse sitting room and afterward at coffin lid, which shifts constantly from side to side, right over my head, and is papered over with the rotting, cloven tongues of angels that will recount, forever and ever without end, the sins I failed to whisper in the confessional, when nothing lay between my confessor and me but a sheet of tin with cruciform holes. O Jesus, nailed to the cross through thy hands and feet, have mercy on us! O Jesus, pleading for thine enemies on the cross, have mercy on us! O Jesus, taunted by the thief to thy left, have mercy on us! For the three days when I lie exposed, place a bit of turf from the high meadow on my breast, then take it back to the field and plant it where you first dug it up. If you lament my death, summoning angel and devil with upraised hands, then put on your winter mittens, but if the sky is cloudless, do not point your bare finger toward heaven, lest you poke out your guardian angel’s bloodshot eyes and he fail to see you there all alone, striding across a bridge without railings, a basket full of death masks in your hand. Just think, the rapids rush past endlessly beneath your naked feet. If you still despise Jogl Kranewitt, and if he threatens you with a blood-smeared sickle and an earth-smeared scythe, then fetch a rusty coffin nail from out of my grave, go to your enemy while he walks carelessly across his fields, and drive the coffin nail into one of his footprints. So long as he lives, he will hear and feel screaming and the gnashing of teeth, in his soul and in his bones. If you have a toothache, poke your sick tooth with a coffin nail until it bleeds, and then push the still-bloody nail into the apricot tree by the wall of the horse stables with the peening hammer that belonged to your grandfather. If my mortal remains—I do not care to say the word corpse, it is not so nice as my mortal remains, or better still, the refined term cadaver—if, to continue, my mortal remains must be carted off by the death-lackeys, then go to the stables and rouse the beasts. All the animals should be in motion, taking leave of me on their feet, in accordance with the demands of dignity. Make the sign of the cross over Onga and the bay, my two favorite horses, on the star, the white spot on their foreheads. While the death-lackeys take my coffined body from the house, let all those who live there, Jogl, Hansl, Seppl, Peter, Mitze, Papa, Mama, the maid and the manservant, be blessed by an altar boy in purple robes with a burning bundle of juniper. Serve cold meat glazed in honey to the guests at the funeral banquet, especially to the ladies-in-mourning brought in for the occasion, but also to the coffin bearers, the lantern bearers, the priests and the two altar boys in black. May the master of ceremonies take care that no gaps appear in the funeral train, lest another villager die soon, because there is room for another coffin. O Jesus, who promised paradise to the penitent thief, have mercy on us! O Jesus, entrusting thy mother to John from the cross, have mercy on us! O Jesus, commending John to thy mother from the cross, have mercy on us! O Jesus, forsaken by thy father on the cross, have mercy on us! Sniff the sweat of the horses as they heave with the hay cart covered in peonies, hauling a coffin over the village hill and passing under the blossoming cherry trees into the cemetery. Take care that the mourning cross be seared in the hooves of the pale horses with a red-hot bar of iron. But if the white oxen have yet to be slaughtered and sold, and instead of the draft horses, you prefer that the oxen bear my body to the graveyard, then be sure the coachman does not strike the oxen if they happen to stop—listen!—at some crossroads or elsewhere for a few minutes, to commemorate me. The coachman, who must wear a black flower in his hat, may not bring a whip, but only a braided rod of hazel, wrapped in black crepe paper, taken from the churchyard. Drink the water from the furrows left behind by the wheels of my hearse, and think of your sufferings, then you will be healed. O Jesus, sodden with vinegar and gall, have mercy on us! O Jesus, whose death on the cross redeems all, have mercy on us! O Jesus, whose father heard his cries from the cross, have mercy on us! O Jesus, obedient till your death on the cross, have mercy on us! Instead of a funeral wreath with Christmas candles, set a burning lantern on my coffin, and for the love of God and Heaven, make sure it doesn’t fall over, that the oil doesn’t spill, and that my coffin doesn’t catch fire. Just imagine how the stiff black crepe paper would crackle, and the flustered white oxen would run away with the flaming hay cart, until at last my coffin fell to the ground, my burning cadaver rolled over the patch of earth and came to rest at the feet of a scarecrow set up to keep the death birds at bay, and it too—as my flaming corpse-tongue licked at its tattered garb, we say that, don’t we, tongues of fire?—would catch fire, and the two of us, my cadaver and the scarecrow for the death birds, would lie there, a single ash heap in the middle of a smoldering field. Have the last one in the funeral train shut the gate to the graveyard loud and clear with his heel, so that death—just think, death is a living corpse—will remain outside. Quickly, throw down several crowns of thorns before the cemetery gate, so the barefoot grim reaper will not enter the graveyard and seek out one of the mourners. O Jesus, who commended his soul to his father’s hands as he hung on the cross, have mercy on us! O Jesus, who died with his head hanging low, have mercy on us! O Jesus, who died for the sake of our sins, have mercy on us! O Jesus, who was pierced by the lance as he hung on the cross, have mercy on us! If the child is tall enough, and can see out over the head of a calf, let him walk with the funeral train holding burning wax candles as long as my cadaver, I insist. Do not forget to leave these candles beside the bouquets of flowers on my grave, naturally with the black wicks close to my head, so that now and then, in the depths of night, when the heavy grave mound has laid long over my coffin, I can light them again and seek out bits of holy wafers in the catacombs beneath the church’s floor. With crumbs of holy wafers on my dark blue lips, I will lay my head again on my death-cushion, which may yet be filled with earth from the holy land. O Jesus, taken down from the cross and left on thy mother’s lap, have mercy on us! O Jesus, who hath saddened thy mother unto death, have mercy on us! O Jesus, interred in thy linen shroud, have mercy on us! O Jesus, laid in a freshly dug grave, have mercy on us! O Jesus, who freeth our ancestors from limbo, have mercy on us! On All Souls’ Day, do not forget to hang the pretzels on the crosses and the gravestones, for at night, the poor will come take them away. On my gravestone, which will be sweating blood, fasten hen eggs filled with holy water, and let them hang there thirty days and thirty nights, because the water, as it drips down, will quench the fires of Purgatory.
JOSEF WINKLER (b. 1953, Austria) is the author of more than a dozen books, among them When the Time Comes and Natura Morta. His major themes are suicide, homosexuality, and the corrosive influence of Catholicism and Nazism in Austrian country life. Winner of the 2008 Buchner prize and current president of the Austrian Art Senate, he lives in Klagenfurt with his wife and two children.Adrian Nathan West
ADRIAN NATHAN WEST is a literary translator and the author of the forthcoming novel The Aesthetics of Degradation. His translations include Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny and Alma Venus, three novels by Josef Winkler, and Marianne Fritz’s The Weight of Things.